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HMP Low Moss: Test bed

It is the shining new beacon of the prison estate in Scotland. But HMP Low Moss is more than just a building; it could be the model for the jails of the future

It has been described as a ‘new canvass’ on which to sketch fresh ideas as to what prisons of the future will look like in Scotland.

HMP Low Moss opened in March this year after being redeveloped from a once ramshackle series of RAF huts into a glistening new facility for 700 prisoners.

And – as the Scottish Prison Service stressed at the time – the £120m jail was completed on-time and on-budget.

But more importantly, the East Dunbartonshire prison is a test bed in terms of its approach to offenders. Whereas in the past, inmates could only see loved ones at set visiting times, children with fathers at the jail are allowed to visit every weekday after 5.15pm.

Fathers are also able to help their children with homework in a bright, modern family area, overseen by teachers from local community volunteer groups.

Scouts and Brownie groups are even operating at the prison to encourage young children to engage in group activities while they are there.

It is a very different approach to the prisons of old, where visiting regimes were strict, with little opportunity for relationship building.

And for those who have not been incarcerated before, the first experience of jail is mitigated by a dedicated area where prison officers can work with new entrants.
These are subtle but important changes to the way individual prisoners are treated within the estate, which sees greater emphasis placed on supporting eventual reintegration into society.

Andy Hogg, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association (Scotland), welcomes the approach, which recognises the need for children seeing their parents as positive role models.

He tells Holyrood: “I think it’s good. If we can maximise positive interactions, relationships, then all the better.

“It’s also about engaging with the families as well to make sure they’re going back into a supportive environment.

“A lot of this comes down to broken families, and children repeating the same mistakes [of their parents].

“The experience I have with fathers – engaging with their children – they’re not sitting there saying, ‘carry on your life of crime’. The conversation is around ‘don’t you do what I’ve been doing, this is where it all ends up’. But they’ve not always got the opportunity to say, ‘here’s the path that you should take’ – where that path is all mapped out.

“They don’t actually know what it looks like and neither, necessarily, are all fathers engaged with that either. If they’re coming from deprived areas or if they’ve not had any formal education, on an intellectual level, it might be more challenging for them as well. So their capacity to work things out, unless you’re actually sitting down with them and showing them, and get them to engage on a different level, get their self-esteem up as well, so they realise, actually, I can break away from this.”

There has also been talk of prison officers taking more of an active role in offender management beyond the prison gates.

That is predicated on the fact that offenders often build up positive relationships with prison officers – but are too frequently left to their own devices when released.

Many third sector groups and community services step in to fill the gap – with more than 1,300 in Scotland alone – and help reintegrate prisoners into the community. Butt Hogg believes the Scottish Government’s focus on intervention and prevention, in terms of reoffending, can be aided by prison officers supporting prisoners on release.

He says Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, has recently sounded out the POAS on that subject.

“You’re coming at a timely point because the chief executive has contacted us with a view and he’s very much similar-minded to us and I know the idea has very much garnered support over the years, firstly, with the inspectorate and now with the chief executive and they want to do something with it and take it forward.

“There are practicalities in terms of prison staff being kept safe while they are operating in public. There are some issues we need to make sure we’re comfortable with but essentially, the focus is about trying to cut the reoffending rate and trying to get rehabilitation into that.”

Hogg says the “blueprint” for what a service that sees prison officers doing some community work – or just being on the phone – needs to be defined.

But he hints that prison officers could be deployed in the last two months of a sentence – which sees them go out with offenders and to help them resettle.

In principle, he says he is in favour of trying anything that helps keep prisoners from returning to custody – the so-called ‘revolving door’ effect.

He says: “How that will look I’m not entirely sure but the idea is that you release them from custody although they’re still on sentence – or part of their sentence is served in the community. It’s where you serve your sentence because the majority of your sentence is served in custody but then you’re released and you’re still serving part of your sentence, but it’s in the community. So there may be an element that you can actually build for whatever period, the last month or two months or whatever, where you’re then guiding this person through the housing associations, the probationary service, benefits, those kinds of things.”

Hogg’s willingness to see prison officers take on an expanded role very much reflects the central tenet of Audit Scotland’s recent report on reducing reoffending.

That report pointed out that reoffending rates have remained relatively static for the last 15 years – with around 30 per cent of offenders being reconvicted within a year.

The report recommended that the Scottish Government – which estimates reoffending costs taxpayers £3bn a year – review current arrangements for managing offenders in the community.

But Hogg stresses that overcrowding is often the reason why prison officers do not have the time to undertake constructive work with inmates.

“So much depends on the conditions at the establishment at the time as well. If you’re overcrowded, which we have been for many years, then the bulk of your officers’ time is spent running a regime, making sure that their social aspects in terms of letters and requests, the day-to-day routine, is being fulfilled.

“Attending to health needs is another issue – Barlinnie is sending something like 500 methadone scripts a day. That takes a chunk of time.

“So if a normal regime – because you’re massively overcrowded – is spent just making sure you do the basics, getting them down for dinner or their breakfasts, the various bits and bobs, the window of opportunity for any intervention gets shorter and shorter and shorter. If you’ve got that over a short period of time, for a short sentence, the chances of you doing any sort of reasonable intervention that will have impact are zilch.”

Hogg also supports a greater emphasis on community sentences – rather than short-term custody – as a way of managing offenders.

That is supported by a body of evidence which suggests community sentences lead to lower reoffending rates than short prison terms.

Critics have pointed out, however, that those receiving community sentences are very often different population groups to those who are imprisoned.

But Hogg believes the prison population is too high – having reached almost 8,000 this year, compared to around 5,000 when he started in the service in the 1980s.

“It’s a real bug bear not just of mine but of others in the sense that in Scotland I think there’s something like 153 per 100,000 – if not the biggest, one of the biggest in Europe, disposals for a country this size seems to be incredible.

“When you actually compare that to crime apparently having fallen, people feeling safe, in the sense that you don’t get a sense that Scotland is an unsafe country to be in, why have we got so many people in prison?”